July 12, 2020
I did my first Covid era funeral a couple of weeks ago. The whole service was held at the cemetery with a small, socially distanced, mask-wearing congregation of immediate family and close friends. Covid19 was actually the second severe pandemic that Beatrice, the deceased, had lived through (or at least, into). The first was the Spanish Flu of 1918; Beatrice was 104 when she passed away. Not knowing her at all beyond the conversation that her son and I had prior to the service, I decided to spend a little time in my sermon reflecting upon the fairly dramatic change she had experienced in her lifetime. When she was born women weren’t allowed to vote in the US. The first human flight was only 13 years old but just prior to her death we once again sent astronauts into space. She was a huge Yankees fan and watched all of Jo Dimaggio’s 13 all-star seasons. In fact, she spend her 100th birthday at Yankee Stadium. She was already 3 when Babe Ruth came to the Yankees, so perhaps she got to see him play too, but if she did it wasn’t on TV. TV’s didn’t start appearing in people’s homes until she was in her mid 30’s. She lived through 2 World Wars, the Civil Rights movement, the assassination of a President, the birth of computers, globalization, social media, and the unveiling of the iPhone 11. The world she entered and the world she left were radically different, which makes you think just how resilient and adaptable we really are, or actually can be.
Beatrice came to mind again when on Facebook the other day I saw an old black and white picture of women with their babies in hand fleeing what looked like a bombed out London. The post imagined your life had you been born in the year 1900. By the time you were 18, 22 million had died in WW1. Soon after, the Spanish Flu killed 50 million. When you were 29 the NYSE collapsed and the Great Depression began. At 33 the Nazis came to power in Germany. When you are 45 WWII ends with 60 million dead. Shortly after that, of course, you lived through the Korean War, and then after that you saw the Vietnam War…
Ultimately, the point of the post was to provide some perspective and thereby some comfort. Yes, we should wear masks despite the inconvenience. Yes, we should distance, despite feelings of isolation. But keep in mind, we also have food, electricity, running water, wifi, even Netflix! To quote the post, “None of that existed back in the day. But humanity survived those circumstances and never lost their joy of living. A small change in our perspective can generate miracles. We should be thankful that we are alive. We should do everything we need to do to protect and help each other.”
I agree that a small shift in perspective can yield dramatic results. This is especially true in matters of faith. Just consider the difference in thinking of God primarily as the one you must please in order to gain favor verses thinking of God as the One who is eternally pleased to give Godself to you. That shift alone can turn your faith life from one of endless striving and depletion to a deep source of assurance and joy.
But, that said, I’m not so sure the post really works all that well. What I notice about it mostly is the violence of our history. We go from war to war with small breaks in between. We just can’t seem to figure out a different way of being, a way that isn’t so colored by force, much of it lethal.
I’ve also never really appreciated the comfort in knowing that, “well, things could be worse.” Maybe it works for you, and if it does that’s fine, but for me there can be a subtle dismissing of one’s pain, like the answer to suffering is to scold yourself because others have suffered more. Of course, it depends on the level of suffering involved. Wearing a mask and practicing some distancing is nothing compared to losing everything and fleeing from war on foot with your baby in hand. So, perhaps we can find strength in the strength that others have shown in the face of suffering. But, what the post doesn’t say is that our collective suffering is far more than simple inconveniences. Multiple crises are hitting us all at once. There’s the public health crisis of a global pandemic; there’s the economic crisis of so many jobs and livelihoods lost; there’s the political crisis of a country that is radically divided, and of course a racial justice crisis that’s calling us to examine and change radicalized systems. There are other crises too, like the growing crisis over policing in our country as well as what seems to be a mounting battle between ideology on the one hand and freedom of speech on the other. Of course, none of this is to even mention the many personal and individual crises that we carry with us as we live and suffer our losses and hurts.
What I’m getting at is that this time is harder than we may consciously understand. If you are feeling its weight in your body and soul, if you are tired and sad somewhere deep within you, or kind of lost from yourself in some way, you aren’t alone What’s happening now is a lot to take and apprehend, maybe too much so, and if it is getting to you you are in good company.
The biblical tradition for handling such situations is actually not to remind yourself that others have had it worse. It is to express honestly the pain within you; it is to lament. And, examples of doing just that abound in the Psalms. Here’s one you may have heard: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Of course, those are Jesus’ words from the cross, but he’s quoting Psalm 22, which continues, “Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.” The biblical tradition is to lay it out before God; to share your truth with God even if it is a truth you would be embarrassed to tell, or a truth you don’t fully understand, or one you think you shouldn’t feel. What the laments tell us is that God meets us where we are, not where we think we should be. God can handle our honest outpours, our pessimism, our discouragement, our anger, and stress, and sadness and whatever else. In fact, I think that God does more than handle these expressions. I think God uses them. We let them out and often we find ourselves in a better place to hear.
We see a hint of that in today’s Psalm. The Psalmist is “severely afflicted,” he “holds his life in his hands continually,” his enemies have “laid a snare for him.” But, in voicing his affliction he is also reminded of his joy and God’s faithfulness. “Your decrees are my heritage forever; they are the joy of my heart.” This is a pattern we see repeated in many of the laments, and I think the confession is that perhaps they – or, our own laments – position us to be a little more receptive to the new thing, the surprising thing, the grace-filled thing, the redemptive thing, the simple thing, the powerful thing, or the sustaining thing that God is doing.
In his letter to the Romans Paul talks a lot about “life in the flesh” vs. “life in Christ,” or “life in the Spirit.” Unfortunately, flesh too often has been understood literally as if it is an indictment on the body, as if our physical natures are somehow bad. But, this is neither true nor Paul’s point. “Life in the flesh” for Paul represents the uninspired life, a life removed from God’s animating and holy Spirit. “Life in the flesh” is a life that subscribes to the dominating power structures of the empire and its depleting and demoralizing messages about human purpose, and value, and meaning. “Life in Christ,” is life that is transformed by the indwelling Spirit of the eternal God. It is life that knows potential and possibility beyond the conventional because it accepts the presence of transcendence. It is life of abiding value because it embraces an abiding God, a life of sacred purpose because it knows a holy love for all, a life of peace and hope because it knows a God of resurrection.
Access to this life is a gift, and experiencing it is a choice. “Choose life in the Sprit,” says Paul, “because it is the Spirit that has been given to you in this life.” The thing is, it is important to recognize that this is not a “once for a lifetime” kind of choice. It’s the kind of choice you make daily, and it’s the kind of choice you make over and against competing and powerful alternatives. The other day I was listening to a speaker who recalled Frederick Beachner saying, if you succeed in choosing it 10 out of 10 times you’ve probably got the wrong idea. 3 out of 10 is probably more realistic. 3 out of 10 is probably a sign that you get the radical alternative that such a choice is. 3 out of 10 is probably a sign that you’ve felt the liberating joy that accompanies it.
Now, maybe he’s wrong. Maybe the more practiced we are the better we get at it. But, his point is that the challenges are real, the flesh is seductive (to put it in Pauline terms), the world’s ways play powerfully in the shaping of our lives. Maybe that’s why lament is so counterintuitively useful to God. In lament we bare our souls and in being so revealed we realize both our need and our deep desire.
In a kind of lament over the state of the world in 2011 Brian Zahnd preached some words I’ll quote now which both express this desire for what it is Christ offers and remain all the more relevant here in 2020.
“Here we are twenty centuries after Caiaphas, who for the sake of his nation, and Pilate, who for the sake of his empire, condemned [Jesus] “that preacher of peace” to death in favor of retaining the status quo of violent revolution and militaristic empire. Wars have continued to define us. Freedom has continued to be largely understood as the power to kill. Violence has continued to be viewed as a legitimate way of shaping our world. All in an outright betrayal of Jesus Christ and his revolutionary ideas. Ideas that were rejected by superpower ideology and colluding religion on Good Friday, but vindicated by the living God on Easter Sunday! Yes, Easter Sunday and the resurrection of Jesus changes everything! It’s the hope of the world, the dawn of a new age, the rising of the New Jerusalem on the horizon of humanity’s burned-out landscape…
So isn’t it time we abandoned our de facto allegiance with Pontius Pilate and Caiaphas and their worn out, death-dealing ideas, and starting listening to and embracing the revolutionary, life-giving ideas of “that preacher of peace” whom God has raised from the dead and declared to be Lord by the power of an indestructible life? Isn’t it time we were converted and become as children who have the capacity to imagine the radical otherness of the kingdom of God? Isn’t it time for the stranglehold of the status quo to give way to the possibilities of prophetic imagination? Isn’t it time for the peaceable kingdom of Christ to be considered a viable option in the here and now and not forever relocated to the “sweet bye and bye”? Isn’t it time? I pray it is! I believe it is!”
Here’s where I’m at. All of these crises converging upon us all at once are exhausting, overwhelming, and depleting. They are draining me, and I know I’m not alone. But, in being drained I’m also opening to a desire for something better, for more love, more justice, more peace. More importantly, they are awakening me to my need and my desire for a God who can do what I alone (we alone) cannot, a God who is at work, a God who’s wisdom is worth our trust, a God whose great joy is to grant us life in the Spirit, and to shine that life through us as we learn to follow. I know I’m not alone in that either. In fact, I hope you are with me.